Toyota Atlantic, Class of ’04: Ready for prime time
While Danica Patrick is a shoe-in for an IRL ride next year, Jon Fogarty and Ryan Dalziel set their sights on a Champ Car future.

   by Cássio Côrtes
August 16, 2004

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Editor's Note: Cássio Côrtes is a young Brazilian journalist who writes for AutoRacing1.com.  Multilingual (English, Portuguese, Spanish and French), Mr. Cortes brings a fresh South American perspective to our staff.

Ryan Dalziel

Sure, all the hype in the Toyota Atlantic series lies with the sexiest driver in America today. Yet despite Danica Patrick’s talent – one which is quickly recognized by her peers –, a look at this year’s championship points table will reveal two familiar names on top: 2002 champion Jon Fogarty leads ’03 runner-up Ryan Dalziel by a single point.

Mathematically, Danica and rookies Andrew Ranger (Dalziel’s teammate) and Ronnie Bremer, winner of the Denver GP, are also in the title hunt. But there’s little doubt in the Atlantic paddock that the crown will go either Jon’s or Ryan’s way – before this weekend, they had partnered to win all but one race this season, leading all laps except for Alex Figge’s 32 at Monterrey, Mexico.

Driving the #96 Pacific Coast Motorsports entry, Californian Jon Fogarty sits in a freakish position in the world of motorsports. You’re not supposed to remain in a ladder series after you become its champion, not for another season, not for, as in Jon’s case, another two years. The blame doesn’t lie only in open-wheel's turmoil since the split: “Guys like Chip Ganassi wouldn’t hire Americans,” complains Fogarty. “They say F3000 was a better training ground. But look at AJ [Allmendinger, 2003 Atlantic champion], getting podiums already in a first-year team. That speaks a lot for the caliber of this series.”

Jon Fogarty

Ryan Dalziel, whose name carries a puzzling silent “Z” that makes its pronunciation sound like “D.L.”, shares Jon’s opinion. The Scottish driver raced both F3 and F3000 in Europe, and pans both series. “An F3 car has so little HP it makes it pointless, while F3000 is a waste that is still going only because it races in front of F1.”

His Sierra Sierra teammate Andrew Ranger agrees to what most of Atlantic’s detractors say, meaning the car has too much chassis for too little engine, perhaps being “too good” to make an ideal training car. He quickly makes his point, though: “But everybody has the same engine, so it does come down to driver talent to win.”

While all it takes to hear guys like Fogarty, Dalziel and Ranger is walking up to the Pacific Coast and Sierra Sierra trailers, Danica is a whole different ballgame. To begin with, she’s the only one of them with a full-time person handling her media appearances. “She’s got a full schedule for today already,” says Brent Maurer, the one responsible for her PR. “But we can squeeze you in after the post-qualifying press conference, if Danica makes the top-three.”

She doesn’t, and off I am to the Rahal trailer, looking for Brent once again. Danica’s already gone for the day.

The following morning, I get a phone call from Maurer: “Does 12:45 today work for you?” You know you’re dealing with someone busy when their schedule is divided in 15-minute intervals.

Danica Patrick

I’m sitting inside Team Rahal’s trailer when this tiny little brunette shows up. Danica’s handshake grip is the tightest of anyone I’ve ever interviewed, and that includes a bunch of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fighters back in my homeland.

Her grip feels like a calculated effort to dilute stereotypes. Yet Danica’s track record this year speaks otherwise: her smooth style has made her the only driver in the series to complete every lap so far this season.

The first couple of questions, about the Denver race and the battle for the Atlantic title, go by in a flash. It’s clear Danica’s newsworthiness is beyond the ’04 season. She’ll be testing one of Rahal’s IRL cars later this year, and it’s pretty much taken for granted she’ll be an IRL driver in 2005, backed by Argent Mortgage.

Thus, her replies won’t ever verge on sponsor-unfriendliness: “My ultimate career goal is the Indy 500,” she says. Danica seems to believe her road racing needs will be supplied by Tony George in the near horizon. Her vision for the IRL’s future sounds like a wish rather than a prediction: “A 50-50 split would be amazing.”

Curiously, both Fogarty and Dalziel underlined Danica as being very “marketable.” Isn’t that slightly off of how a racecar driver wants to be recognized?

“I think it’s the best thing you can have,” she disagrees. “As long as I can be the fastest out there, like I’ve proved I can on the right day [although still winless in her two Atlantic seasons, Danica started from pole at Portland this year], it’s a great attribute.”

Maurer interrupts us: “Sorry, we only have time for two more questions. She needs to spend time with her sponsors.” Inside such a pressured environment, I can’t help but wonder whether Danica is a skirted version of Jimmy Bly (if you don’t recognize this reference, I advise you it’s not even worth googling).

Within the open-wheel community, Danica already receives a superstar treatment. In a couple of years, her stardom will spread to mainstream America, too. Don’t be surprised when you see her first sitcom cameo appearance sometime in the next fifteen months.

“Sometimes it does become ‘The Danica Patrick Show’, and it can be annoying,” Jon Fogarty admits. Despite obtaining much more expressive results, both Fogarty and Ryan Dalziel likely won’t have a big-league top ride as soon as Danica. “She gets results to back her hype,” begins Ryan. “But she has never won a race. Nothing we can say will change that.”

Dalziel’s Yin to that Yang is pragmatic: “On the other hand, her high profile brought Argent, and I’m not sure this series would have survived without Argent backing for much of it this year. So without her, maybe there wouldn’t even be a championship to fight for.”

Fogarty tries to settle the Danica issue: “We were teammates last year. She is a very good driver.”

How good is very, though? There are two ways to answer:

1 - Not enough to beat Fogarty and Dalziel to the checkered flag anytime this year.

2 - More than enough to win IRL races given good equipment, and bury any Sarah Fisher stigmas.

In an Atlantic field scrambling to get 12 starters for this weekend’s race, Danica emerges as a highly “marketable” commodity. She may even save the sport itself by being its first superstar in quite a while, thanks in part to the bizarre state of American open-wheel racing today, in which its richer league allows merely good drivers to win as much as the exceptional ones. In such a sea of uncertainties, how important still is the Atlantic championship?

Fogarty claims it would help his perspectives for ‘05, but the fact is, he’s seen the door being shut in front of him too many times. “Sure it’s important,” he starts before adding in his outspoken style: “Then again, guys like Sperafico and Philippe are in Champ Cars without ever having won anything, so I guess winning isn’t that big. Look at David Empringham: he won it twice, and now he’s a driving coach.”

“I’m sure Champ Car would like to help me [getting a ride]”, continues Fogarty. “It’s what I want most, as long as I don’t jump in [a bad car] and look like an ass. I won’t do it just to say I’ve done it.”

There’s not a doubt in my mind a guy like Jon could easily be competitive in the IRL. Would he consider going Danica’s way?

“If the IRL went to a 50-50 road course/oval split, it could be appealing. Otherwise, turning just left is not my idea of having a good time. The risks there far outweigh the rewards.” Champ Car is not the only road racing in this country, he reminds: “Both the Grand Am and ALMS series look strong right now.”

Again, Dalziel’s thoughts echo the Californian’s: “You have to consider [the IRL] as an option these days, but it would by no means be my first choice. I’d rather be a backmarker in Champ Car than a frontrunner in the IRL.”

Even Ranger, likely still a couple of years away from the major leagues, dreads the idea of a mostly-oval future: “It’s an engineer’s series. The driver’s in there, learning nothing, and the best engineer wins.”

A gifted roster whose futures hold more doubts than they would like, the Toyota Atlantic 2004 alumni come up as yet another batch of victims caught in the crossfire of open-wheel racing’s fratricide war. Whether Fogarty, Dalziel and Patrick head for the IRL or Champ Car in ’05 and beyond, what’s left of this year’s season likely will be their final chance to measure their talents against each other.

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